“I cannot believe that everything must be subordinated to a single end. There are means which cannot be excused "➖ Albert Camus
I first learned of the killing of Lord Mountbatten on a prison visit from my late mother and brother. It was during the blanket protest, so other ways of accessing the news were not as available to us. At that point, on “our wing” in H4, there was no crystal miniature radio “bangled” away in a back passage, the usual dank depository for prison contraband: which was just about everything given that just about everything was prohibited by prison management as part of its strategy of deprivation, physical and mental.
On the visit with my family, I was told that Mountbatten had died in an explosion on a boat but there was some talk that it might have been gas related. Such was the uncertainty as to why anyone might wish to end his life.
Clarity had no more of a presence in the jail wings either. When I eventually returned to my cell and relayed the news to my fellow blanket men, they too seemed unsure as to the provenance of his fate. Later that same summer evening word was shouted across from our protesting comrades in H5 about the British Army sustaining serious casualties in a bomb attack. There was no doubt as to who was responsible. The mood that night was one of jubilation. The same sentiment was nowhere near as palpable in response to Mountbatten. Unlike the Paras at Narrowwater, about whom there was no equivocation, his status as a “legitimate target” seemed less certain.
Once it was confirmed that the IRA had carried out both operations, and in particular seemed to have hurt British officialdom more through Mountbatten than the soldiers, the general attitude on the prison protest wings was that the Mullaghmore operation was a job well done. Mountbatten was a second cousin of the Queen and India’s last viceroy – something few of us on the blanket mentioned at the time. Those of us who knew anything about him had acquired that knowledge courtesy of the World At War television series. That an IRA bomb rather than a gas explosion had claimed him coupled with the annoyance of the British establishment and press, was enough to move the needle for us. What the world might think seemed irrelevant. It was either with us or against us. When I smuggled newspaper clippings back to the Blocks from a Belfast court, collated and perfectly packaged in clingfilm by Martin Hurson - a former blanketman but then back on remand and who would later die on hunger strike - which cited Yasser Arafat condemning the killing, the Palestinian was dismissed as a waster who didn’t know what he was talking about.
A young nephew of a prisoner later told him a joke on a visit. The nephew stated that what really had killed Mountbatten was dandruff: he had left his head and shoulders on the shore. When the prisoner in turn relayed the joke to us, we laughed and guffawed. The man whom we previously held few views on one way or the other had been transformed into an arch nemesis worthy of being ripped apart.
In that atmosphere of triumphalism, where I was as raucous as the rest, the fate of the children or anyone else on board was a footnote. They had become casualties of war, the horror of their deaths not permitted by us to blemish the act of giving the Brits their comeuppance. Given our circumstances of life in a cauldron of deprivation underpinned by prison staff violence, it is understandable that - even with the benefit of reflection - the well of sympathy was there for ourselves alone to drink from. We were young and empathy was in short supply.
The Mullaghmore attack featured again during the week when Sinn Fein was put to the test of public scrutiny over its attitude to the IRA’s perspective on British royalty. The party had been so gushing with its condolences to the monarchy on the death of Philip Mountbatten, that a blind man could sense what the next question was going to be.
Mary Lou McDonald stepped up to the plate. Before she had the time to drop it the media, ears blocked and eyes wide shut, made a story out of nothing. It claimed she had apologised for the killing. Yes, her predecessor as party president had been on the army council of the IRA at the time of the killing, but it was hardly something she could be remotely linked to. Gerry Adams stating that “he knew the danger involved in coming to this country” was a sentiment she was going to steer well clear of. Any claim she might make to have had no hand or part in IRA operations would be readily believable.
So, without having looked at it, to my mind there seemed no way she would have Sinn Fein apologising for an IRA operation given the fiction the party had sustained for decades that it was not in any way linked to the IRA.
The most she said was that she was sorry that Mountbatten or any other person had died during the war. That comes nowhere close to being a political apology. Her undoing came when Fran McNulty later interviewed her on Prime Time, where he focused less on Mountbatten and more on the dead children, Paul Maxwell and Nicholas Knatchbull. His question was simple but direct – in the clear knowledge that children had embarked on a boat was it wrong to press the button and detonate the bomb? That was the moment the plate dropped. McDonald pressed a self-destruct button of her own and refused to acknowledge that there were no circumstances in which such an act could ever be right. She bobbed and she weaved, but he landed the punch.
Whatever the justification or mitigation in targeting Mountbatten, he should never have been attacked while in the company of civilians or children. Unlike the targeting of the Paras later the same day, that is what makes the attack on the Shadow V a war crime. McDonald, usually an accomplished media performer, was poor to the point that one observer commented “This is as bad an interview as Mary Lou has done in a long time … really struggling with basic answers to pretty simplistic questions.”
Mary Lou McDonald should not be apologising for the attack on behalf of Sinn Fein, unless she is willing to admit that it was the work of the Republican Movement of which Sinn Fein and the IRA were the primary constituent parts. Slim chance of that.
She should not politically apologise for the IRA’s war against British state terrorism. To do so would be to cloud the issue of what helped cause and sustain that war. Sorry alone – swing alone.
She should not be evasive about the targeting of children. The option is there for her to call on the IRA to apologise for a war crime.
In these matters where time, maturity, empathy, nuance all combine to induce more ethical reflection, I find something useful in the thinking of the just war theorist, Michael Walzer when observing a play by Albert Camus:
In the early twentieth century, a group of Russian revolutionaries decided to kill a Tsarist official, the Grand Duke Sergei, a man personally involved in the repression of radical activity. They planned to blow him up in his carriage, and on the appointed day one of their number was in place along the Grand Duke’s usual route. As the carriage drew near, the young revolutionary, a bomb hidden under his coat, noticed that his victim was not alone; on his lap he held two small children. The would-be assassin looked, hesitated, then walked quickly away. He would wait for another occasion. Camus has one of his comrades say, accepting this decision: “Even in destruction, there’s a right way and a wrong way—and there are limits.”
Mullaghmore was the wrong way and children are off limits.
⏩Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.